One up – one down.

One up – one down.

29/30 January 2010

I’m at my mother’s house in Northern Transylania – I haven’t been home since Christmas and now, barely arrived from the train station, I’m getting my skis ready. I’m leaving in ’15… When I returned home from Asia, a year ago, I promised longer times at home – a promised I fell short off…

In the evening, on the way back, the phone rings. Tomorrow it’s ice climbing – my partner tells me not to worry about a thing: ‘Just bring your axes and crampons. I’ll bring the rest. We are leaving at 7:30am. I’ll call you at 7:00.’ I’m dropping my skis off and I eat dinner. I’m actually talking with mom… true, about my skiing day, but I’m sharing…. I forget to ask though… Phone rings again. I’m off to the pub for a quick drink. 8 jack & coke and several hours later I’m back home. It’s 4am and I don’t fancy counting how much time I still have for bed. I crash.

I’m up at 8am. Why no one called? I pick up he phone: ‘Sorry – I fell asleep’ comes the answer. ‘Anyway, it snowed all day and traffic is a nightmare.’ Plans are changing. We go climbing. I re-pack in haste and I pick up the skis as well – there is a couloir I hope I’ll have the time to ski if all goes well. Couple of hours later (apparent unplanned delays..) and we’re off to ‘Rooster’s comb’ one of my favourite places o earth – my first climb, my first epic, my first sow in july, my first outdoor date…

On the walk in the day is beautiful – a bit on the warm side with blue clear sky. In places snow is a pain and we’re not moving too fast. The plans are taking shape: climb ‘the four dihedral’s’ route (5A, VII+ UIAA).

The rocky outcrop looks amazing in the distance. I feel like I need a different experience; a more intimate one. I don’t feel like freezing at belays so I let my guys know that they should climb as a team of two while I’ll have a go at the Western ridge (direct start, 3B, VI UIAA). A few camera snaps and they’re off, around the corner – I’m looking up trying to figure out the line.

The start is quite physical – I could have cheated on a gully around the right side but that would defeat the purpose. It’s sunny but the cold is quite crisp. Few meters up I figure out that there are some flakes I have no idea how to hook. Then I figure out that the ice-clippers I normally have on the belt of my backpack are well and safe at home – the spring leashes are with Justin, two counties down south… I’m showing my axes behind the rucksack belt. I feel like a two-sworded Cossack; when lay-backing on the flakes, however I feel like a Cossack in pain with the adze scratching my ribs.

First flat platform and I’m having screaming-barfies. I’m growing soft – seems like I’ve lost the exercise of climbing gloveless. I forego the barfing but I do a bit of screaming and as soon as I can shove my hands back in the gloves and extract the adze from between my ribs I’m off again. Next bit is a silly water-ice curtain. One swing and the whole thing cracks. I trust only one foot and one hook on it while am clinging gloveless on the wall left of it. Dismissed in a few moves and I’m on a platform. Suddenly the wind picks up and it starts snowing. One chocolate bar, a short phone-filmed panorama and I’m off again. Nice face climb moves on a vertical wall take me to a sound ridge. I lay flat few times hoping not to join Dorothy on her flight from Kansas to Oz. During some respites in the blowing and howling am reaching the top. I pull on my parka, I cut a small platform lower down the ridge and I am bracing myself for the wait for my mates. I crank on the iPod shuffle and I begin ‘dancing‘ with my upper body on Red-Hot Chilly Peppers.

One hour later the phone rings: one ice axe dropped and snail-like pace beforehand means my friends will have to abseil so I have to make my own way down. Back up on the ridge, some scrambling down a gully, a traverse and later some down-hill running across an avalanche slope puts me back to my backpack and skis. Water, chocolate and more waiting before we begin our way back. Darkness is on. Forgotten head-torches (all three of us) makes downhill skiing in the backcountry a very interesting proposal. Not soon enough and plenty of bruises later we’re back at the car. Time for a pub soon… Tomorrow it’s skiing again then the 12 hour train ride back to Bucharest.

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6 February 2010

‘What the hell!?’ It’s five to five in the morning and the train leaves at five thirty – there is no  way in the world I can make it. I’m checking the train-times: next is at seven thirty. How could I sleep through my alarm? Maybe going to bed at 2am didn’t help but the nice dinner and small home party the night before made it, at the time, feel well worth it.

I’m checking my backpack again – I don’t want any surprises like the Saturday before. A thought crosses my mind: maybe I should throw in a rope this time – for abseils in case I need to… I chuck in a 50m 8 mil and and ATC guide. The bag feels heavier and I frown. Instinct tells me to stop moaning and have a tea.

The train crawls – two hours plus one hour delay and I arrive in Busteni. I leave my trainers, spare t-shirt and Steve House’s book, freshly arrive in the mail on Thursday at the Romanian Alpine Club’s guest house and I hit the trail. It is late, I am late and the route I’m trying I have been told is a day’s enterprise. It doesn’t look good so I’m speeding up through the snow. One hour later I am at Costila hut. Couple of chocolate bars, some water and a chat with friends already there and now it’s really really late… 1pm already …

I ask about the route – pointing to some imaginary lines helps but just a bit. I’m planning on climbing Costila-Galbenele Ridge (3A, VI+ UIAA) but have only a vague idea of where it goes. I leave the hut and I sprint up on the frozen snow, up on some rocks and through bushes following some tracks. I’m now in front of a long slab (I remember Justin mentioning it). Tracks go left but I decide to do it right and I hop on the slab. I do hate conglomerate and it does not love me much either. I clean loads of snow and I wonder how to place my crampons on rounded pebbles. I’m climbing the thing but not a happy bunny at all. Near the top some traversing to the left and I am in front of a section I’d have no problems climbing in summer but now, with crampons and all, it just locks me out. I down climb and rest. I just cannot bring myself to make some moves on pebbles while arching my back outwards to traverse below an overhang. Indecision costs me precious time – 15 minutes later I’m doing the moves and I hate myself for doing them with doubt in mind.

Back on a snow slope and I look down – two guys are rigging an abseil on the slope at the right of the slab I just climbed. The wind is quite strong and snow clouds are moving in. I scream at them asking for directions. They point in the direction of the route but I cannot fully understand the answers I’m getting. In the end I wave and try to set off. ‘We were trying the route too but the weather has turned bad. We’re going down. You’re sure you want to carry on?’ I nod, wave and sprint up the frozen snow. I’ve climbed through worst weather – that’s not my worry. I worry it’s too late and I worry I’m wasting too much time figuring out my way.

At the wall I believe I see a peg somewhere up so I set off. Up there I start thinking I am most likely to be off route and the pegs I have now on my right are probably abseil pegs. I am below an overhanging crack and I see no more pegs. Justin said here should be plenty…. Anyway, it looks like it takes me to the ridge and after-all with all this snow who the hell can figure it out?

My stomach is killing me – must have been the wine from last night. Or the Jack? Regardless I feel sick and the pain annoys me. I put my axes around my neck and I muscle through the crack. The wind picks up even more and the spindrift is awful. At the first rest I’m putting on my ski-googles. The route does not seem to through where I am so I am traversing right. I’m feeling the climbing more serious than I expected. I am trying to block the negative thoughts about the pebbles i’m hooking and my uneasy stomach.

Soon i’m on some frozen turf and I take a rest and a photo. I’m running up on it and I stumble upon the route – pegs and bolts and all on a ledge. The wind and the spindrift are too strong though. I hunker down in a hollow in the rock and I’m breathing under the collar of my jacket. Parka is on soon and I’m still waiting. I try some moves but the wind pushes too much and I retreat under my rock. ‘Within temptation’ playing in my shuffle competes with the wind and I’m waisting more time….

Twenty minutes later I have only the snow blowing into my face to worry about. The wind has let off and I’m taking advantage. The passage is not easy though clear to follow. I  climb too deliberately. Suddenly a gust of wind hits me midway up the section. Adrenaline kicks in and I realise I have to act fast. I have a 5 mil bit of cord in my pocket – about half a meter. I stretch towards a peg and I thread it through. I knot the thing and slip my hand through the loop just in time. The wind is back on schedule again. I feel a bit like a flag for the next ten minutes. My axe is well jammed, or so I like to believe, but I’m not sure about my front-points perched on rounded pebbles. One more break in the wind and I throw in the last moves I have up to the ridge. Some more running on the last few meters and I’m in front of a new headwall.

Now where? Suddenly my phone alarm rings – it’s 4:30 pm. Suddenly the mystery of my alarm not waking me up is solved… I’m feeling frustrated at my own stupidity.

I fish out the phone from the lid of my backpack and I call Justin who is at a bouldering comp. ‘It’s 4:30 and this is where I am. Which way should I go? Left? Right?’ The answer is unequivocal: ‘Down mate! You still have ways to go, the hard bits are ahead and you only got half an hour of light’

Damn! Two sips of water and the rope comes out. I find the abseil anchor and I thank my instinct for nagging me to take the rope with me. First abseil it’s over. Fog is on, snow is on. I tie one end of the rope to my harness and i start down-climbing – I don’t want to waste time pulling it. Suddenly it’s getting a bit sketchy. I find a dried out remnant of a tiny pine-tree somewhere on the right and I rig an abseil around it. Then down-climb and bushwhack in the dark till the hut – empty now. I chuck all the gear in my backpack and I start skiing on my boots downhill, back to Busteni.

I am calling Justin to tell him I’m off the route and on my way down. ‘We were worried for you! Good you’re safe! Justin is not here right now – he’s having X-Rays! We’re at the hospital. He landed between mattresses and broke his shin!’ Go figure – indoor bouldering…

Half an hour later I begin hearing the music and the commentators near the ski slope – it’s the finals in the International Ice Climbing World Cup. I’m heading down there just in time to see a tiny Korean winning the finals. Pretty impressive. Quite a few friends around and festive atmosphere breaks the magic of solitude.

I don’t feel like hopping on the night train just then so I let myself convinced to join the party – some hot food and a few glasses of wine to take my mind off the one that didn’t go up….

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